Andrea Pirlo’s biography is titled “I think therefore I play”. It could not be more apt.
A cerebral footballer, Pirlo was endowed with a vision and appreciation of time and space that made Pep Guardiola and Xavi Hernandez want him at Barcelona, and Brazil wish he was Brazilian. His eye for a pass recalls a line from former Roma and Sampdoria coach Vujadin Boskov. “The best players,” he liked to say, are those who “see motorways where others see footpaths.”
Carlo Ancelotti put it another way. “Pirlo spots a pass in a split second that lesser players could spend a whole lifetime waiting to see.” And that split second was key. It caught defenders by surprise and out of position. Never the quickest, it didn’t matter. Pirlo, as with chess grand masters, was always three or four moves ahead. He was as Jorge Valdano defined Zinedine Zidane, falso lento—false slow. The lack of any pace to speak of was deceiving. It was upstairs. All in the head and there it was like a Ferrari.
We already have Roberto Baggio at Brescia, so I decided to change Andrea Pirlo's role from a playmaker behind the strikers to a playmaker in front of the defence.
And Pirlo made the ball sing."
—Carlo Mazzone changed Italy football by experimenting with 21-year-old Andrea Pirlo at the base of midfield
He got away from markers with clever movement, often covering more distance than anybody else on the pitch not with intensity, but with intelligence. Everybody knew Pirlo’s teams played through him. The game plan against them was simple then. Stop Pirlo and you nullified Milan, thwarted Juventus, and confounded Italy.
Few succeeded, though, because just when you thought you had Pirlo you lost him again. As if by magic he would wriggle free of his chains like Harry Houdini and prepare for his next trick; a free kick, like one of the 28 he scored in Serie A, a record he shares with Sinisa Mihajlovic, a no-look pass for Fabio Grosso, a ball hit first time over the top for Pippo Inzaghi or Alvaro Morata, a Panenka dinked out of Fabien Barthez or Joe Hart’s reach.
I spent the afternoon of Sunday, July 9, 2006 in Berlin sleeping and playing the PlayStation.
In the evening, I went out and won the World Cup."
—Pirlo's impressive career lists a World Cup, 2 Champions League, and 6 Serie A titles
Quintessentially Italian, the bel paese (beautiful country) found itself reflected in his football. There was style, elegance, a sense of invention, great design, the pursuit of beauty, art. He was a Michelangelo who painted with his feet. Known as a regista in Italy—the director whose imagination makes the screenplay come alive, everywhere else the position is known as the Pirlo role, a measure of his impact.
Switching his position from behind the striker to in front of the defence, an intuition of former Brescia coach Carlo Mazzone, the move not only changed the course of Pirlo’s career, but recent Italian football history too. Pirlo reached the Champions League final four times, winning it twice with Milan. The 2006 World Cup also has his fingers all over it. Pirlo scored Italy’s first goal of the tournament and set up big ones in the semifinal and final. He then put away the first penalty of the shootout against France.
When Andrea Pirlo told me he's joining us, the first thing I thought was: God exists.
A player of his level, his ability, not to mention he signed for free. It's quite simply the coup of the century."
—Before Pirlo, Gianluigi Buffon and Juventus languished at 7th place in Serie A; since Pirlo, Buffon and Juventus never moved out of 1st
The value he added was priceless and yet Pirlo will go down as one of the best free transfers of all-time. Juventus’ eight-year reign at the top of Serie A started with his acquisition. The boot with which he scored a famous 93rd-minute winner in the Turin derby remains one of the prized exhibits at the J Museum. “Grazie Maestro,” Juventus tweeted soon after the news broke that New York City’s defeat in MLS’s Eastern Conference playoffs was Pirlo’s swansong. Sent on in the 90th minute by Patrick Vieira, he received a standing ovation from Yankee Stadium.
Speaking to La Gazzetta dello Sport about his retirement, Pirlo sounded like Joe DiMaggio when he called it quits in 1951. DiMaggio was around the same age when he retired, “full of aches and pains.”
All I’m after when playing football is a few square metres to be myself. A space where I can take the ball, give it to a teammate, teammate scores.
It’s my way of spreading happiness."
—You may say Pirlo is a dreamer, and he is quite the only one
“You can’t train as you’d like,” Pirlo said, “because you always have a knock. At my age it’s time to say ‘enough’s enough.’ It’s not like you can carry on until you’re 50. I’ll do something else.”
Like make wine. Pirlo bought a vineyard a decade ago and produces his own Trebbiano and Rose. But then he sees his old teammates Alessandro Nesta, Andriy Shevchenko, Rino Gattuso, Pippo Inzaghi, Grosso, Fabio Cannavaro, Cristian Brocchi, and Massimo Oddo and they’re all doing the same thing. They’re coaching. Maybe he’ll try his hand at that. After all, midfielders tend to make the best managers. And Pirlo was the pearl among his peers.